Teaching for turbulence

This draft note is prepared as background for a panel discussion on “preparing leaders for a turbulent world” to be held as NASPAA’s conference in October 2018. Details about the panel here.

Programs in public affairs (PA) can learn something from programs in international relations (IR) about preparing students for a turbulent world.

Both types of programs offer a professional education for public service. But they take different approaches. IR programs often start with an overview of theories of international relations. (Example. Example.) Students learn about the state system, its dynamics, and strategies for advancing vital interests abroad. The approach is long-term and comparative. And it takes turbulence for granted. It assumes that national strategies are fragile and that the system is constantly evolving.

Few PA programs begin with a similar overview. Many focus on meso- and micro-level questions of policy design and management. Granted, some programs examine the “political and constitutional context” of policymaking. But they usually do not survey the large forces that drive policy or the strategies by which leaders govern within national borders. When it is offered, the big picture is likely to lack a long-term perspective, and a sense of fragility and dynamism. It is usually focused on the United States alone.

PA programs need an introductory course that matches the overview course in IR. It should set the scene at a high level: explaining the state system, the main goals of leaders at home and abroad, the forces that constrain their actions, and the strategies they use to advance their goals.

Is this too abstract for a professional education? Many IR programs do not think so. In the realm of domestic affairs, public servants also need to know something about overall strategies for governing. Reaganism, Clintonism, and now Trumpism — each of these philosophies have defined the boundaries of the possible for public servants at all levels of government.

Such a course should also be comparative. The age of liberal-democratic triumphalism is over. Governance strategies of major states are diverging sharply once again, and PA students should understand the variations — Xi Jingping Thought, Putinism, Modi-ism and so on. A big-picture introductory class, in the IR style, could achieve that goal too.

Alasdair Roberts is a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.